Peru is dominated by two features that are, to most outsiders, the stuff of legend: the Amazon and the Andes. The lush forests and jungles of the former cover half the country, while the storied peaks of the latter march across another 27 percent.
This topography is home to millions, and a notorious draw for explorers and tourists. (Including you, maybe!) Travelers are indeed rewarded; birders, for instance, have a shot at about 1,800 species, 120 of which aren’t found anywhere else in the world. Plenty of other critters — including the yellow-tailed woolly monkey and the hairy long-nosed armadillo — also make their home solely within the country, which is said to have 28 different climates. Frankly, it’s enough to make us stop writing and get on the next plane.
But Peru suffers as much as it shines. Intent on a quest for gold, Spanish conquerors toppled the Incan Empire more than 450 years ago, and the foreign hunger for natural resources has only grown. Over the past decade, mining companies and others have invested $9 billion in the mineral-rich region. Oil and natural-gas projects have also blossomed, as have logging and coca production. Peru and its people have suffered the side effects of these intense operations, and despite the economic influx, half of the population still lives in poverty.
Change may be on the horizon. A presidential election will happen this weekend, and leading candidate Ollanta Humala is promising to, among other things, make mining companies pay royalties they are currently skirting. Critics worry that he will move the country away from the free-market economy some say has helped strengthen Peru in recent years. But his pledges have earned the support of the rural poor.
It’s a complicated situation, a complicated place. One 19th century naturalist referred to Peru as “a beggar sitting on a bench of gold,” and the phrase has stuck.
In a collection of photos, Gary Braasch takes us on a visit to Peru’s rivers, mountains, ancient temples, and young faces — the country’s true gems.